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Miyoshikiku Shuzō Brewery

Take a walk on the wild side in Ikeda with Miyoshikiku’s counterculture sake.

Miyoshikiku Shuzō Brewery

Myoshikiku Shuzō is a sake brewer in Ikeda, a place known as the navel of Shikoku, since it sits somewhat in the centre of the island at the crossroads between the four prefectures. It’s at the narrow end of the huge Tokushima rift valley, where the mountains rise up steeply on both sides in a V shape. From the Edo period, the area thrived on lucrative indigo and tobacco production, which in turn engendered a demand for good sake.

The brewery shop facing the street is a very solid-looking building, with heavy plaster and tilework, and rows of doors set with panes of glass showing the waviness and flaws typical of handmade glass. At either end of the frontage, two plasterwork walls rise up towards the roof. These are udatsu, ornamental ‘firewalls’ that are typical of traditional merchant buildings. Udatsu are an ostentation that suggest wealth and success.

Miyoshikiku_shop_building

Shikoku Tours visited Miyoshikiku in February when brewing was in full swing. President and master brewer Mamiya Ryōichirō came out to greet us. With his long hair and his T-shirt featuring some alien life form, Mamiya-san looks like the Japanese Iggy Pop of sake brewing. He ushered us into a room filled with stereo equipment and silkscreens for printing the novel sake labels that enliven Miyoshikiku’s bottles. 

Interview

Some of our questions are simple, others not. Mamiya-san has obviously given a lot of thought to issues of positioning and branding, and his answer came easily.

When was the brewery established?
“Meiji 24 – that’s 1891, so about 140 years ago. I’m the fifth generation of the brewing company, but the Mamiya family entered Awa at the beginning of the Edo period, and I’m the fifteenth generation of the family.

I wasn’t going to become a brewer and I never studied to be one. I was working in Tōkyō. When I was 26, my mother called to say that the brewery had no clear future, and she suggested that I get a proper job. But she really wanted the brewery to survive, so I came back and took over. My oldest daughter was a great help then, often working late into the night. Three years ago, for the first time in forty years, the brewery made a profit.”

How many people are on the brewing team?
“There are four people, including me, making the sake. I’m the tōji.

My three daughters come home at New Year and they help me brew one bottle of sake each. They also help at the Ikeda Sake Festival. My oldest daughter is working at a sake wholesaler’s in Ōsaka. My second daughter is at agricultural university in Tōkyō. And my youngest daughter is at high school, but she’s doing study abroad in Australia.”

What rice do you use?
“We mainly use three varieties Yamadanishiki, Gohyakumangoku, and Omachi. They account for about 90%. For the last five years, we’ve been trying to use more rice produced in Tokushima and that’s reached 90%. Omachi is originally from Okayama, and it was the only place that grew it, but from last year, farmers have started producing it in Higashi-Miyoshi in Tokushima.”

Mamiya-san gives us a run-down of the characteristics of the rice. “Yamadanishiki is expensive but very adaptable. You can’t really go wrong with it. Sake made with it also matures well. Omachi makes very floral sake, but it’s difficult to handle because it easily absorbs water. But if you get it right, it makes bolder, better sake than Yamadanishiki. Gohyakumangoku makes clean, crisp sake that isn’t very aromatic. It’s also slightly bitter.”

What is your water source?
“There’s a river called the Matsuo River between Ikeda and Iya that flows into the Yoshino River, and we use the spring water that feeds that. We truck it into the brewery as required.”

What yeast do you use?
“We use various types, for example Kyokai No. 7, and a Tokushima yeast, the predecessor to the LED yeast. I don’t really like Tokushima LED Yume Kōbo, although I’m told to use it.”

What is the defining character of your sake?
“To put it simply, it’s not very sake-like. The way I think of it is that although sake is said to be a traditional industry, people are moving away from nihonshu. Our sake is aimed at people who don’t drink much sake. So we make sake for those who don’t like the smell of traditional sake. Ours has a flowery aroma, with a sweet and sour flavour.  It’s approachable sake.

Ninety percent of our sake is nama, unpasteurised.

We have quite a few limited, character-based brands of cup-type sake that have sold well. For example, we have one based on the game Tōken Ranbu that’s popular with young women. They’re not really your typical sake drinking demographic. It’s important to convert some of these non-drinkers into sake fans.”

Most of the Miyoshikiku labels feature the slogan “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”, in a nod to Mamiya-san’s musical taste and as a statement of the brewery’s ethos.

What is the defining character of Tokushima sake?
“A lot of sake in other areas has a distinct regionality, but the climate of Tokushima itself is fairly different in the east and in the west, and I think the sake in each place is made accordingly. So I don’t think you can easily define Tokushima sake as being this or that.”

From the point of view of sake nationwide, where is your sake positioned? “If you look at the web, I think you’ll find that our brewery has a fairly queer positioning.” Mamiya-san laughs. “In the industry there’s a tendency towards conservative tastes and labels, but both the taste and appearance of our sake is quite extreme. Our sake isn’t very highly rated by the general sake industry, but I don’t really care. About 80% of our sake is sold outside Tokushima prefecture. We have something of a maniac following.

Now other sake brands have started experimenting with more interesting labels, but I think we’re still quite a way out in front … Most of our labels are made by local friends and acquaintances. I prefer using amateurs to professional illustrators because the pros tend to have their own ways and don’t like changing the labels every year.

Miyoshikiku_Lupin_Sansei_lids

We’ve actually taken quite a bashing at times, but if you look at it from a manufacturing viewpoint, if you’re only eccentric but your product isn’t any good, nobody will actually buy it. So we’re constantly having to prove ourselves with the quality of our sake itself. In a sense, we’re actually raising the bar by being so conspicuous.

The media have taken an interest in our approach. For twelve years, we’ve been making sake with local high school pupils. Although they’re not allowed to drink, they can enjoy the aromas of sake, and help with the analysis tasks. The sake they help to make is ready for New Year, and their fathers or grandfathers come to buy it. Also, when the kids turn twenty, I give them a bottle of the sake that they made.”

Which countries are you currently exporting your sake to?
“At the moment it’s Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Chinese mainland, Korea, Malaysia, Australia, America, and a little bit to Europe. The sellers typically get in contact after trying our sake in Tokyo. I think sake goes better with Asian food, so it’s easier to sell nihonshu in Asia.”

What are your thoughts about overseas drinkers of your sake?
“I want visitors to Japan to drink nihonshu and discover and enjoy the various types. But rather than exporting larger and larger quantities, I’d like people to come and enjoy it here. Namazake doesn’t really travel well, and of course, sake best matches the ingredients of Japanese food, many of which can only be had in Japan.”

Is there a particular product that you’d like overseas drinkers to try?
Here Mamiya-san gets out a pamphlet showing all of the varieties.
“We have too many types!”, he says, laughing. “We do a lot of collaboration products, for example with local farmers. Also, Miyoshi city is currently promoting gibier, or game meat, and we have a brand called Tusk that pairs with boar, and Horn that goes well with venison. Tusk is yamahai, a heavy, traditional sake, whereas Horn is more like wine.”

Is there a restaurant near here where people can drink your sake?
“There is indeed. The city has a social space with a counter bar run by my wife, where you can drink local sake including Miyoshikiku with simple local food. It’s called Mai-Mai.”

Do any of your staff speak a foreign language?
“My wife basically speaks English, and she can provide tours of the brewery and service at the bar in English.”

Brewery visit

Mamiya-san took us into the brewery itself, a bare concrete structure built in the 1950s. The wooden parts of the brewery date from the Edo period. Since the brewery is narrow and very deep, getting heavy things in and out is an issue, solved by a little railway and truck.

The main brewing is done upstairs. There’s a tank of sake that’s being brewed in collaboration with the Food Hub in Kamiyama, Tokushima. It’s a yamahai type using organic Nihonbare rice.

Mamiya-san observes that there are lots of friendly, family-run breweries in Shikoku, and many of them have a relaxed attitude to accepting visitors, even letting them into the holy of holies, the kōji room. He takes us right in and starts touching the rice. I ask him about his lack of concern for the hygienic measures taken by many brewers. “Obviously hygiene is a good idea and when I’m actually brewing, I wash my hands and so on. But for a brewery tour, it’s not important. Brewing is a robust craft, and there’s no need to be oversensitive about it. It’s far more important for visitors to see how sake is actually made. Unlike at the big makers, our tanks are open and exposed to the air, but it doesn’t make any difference.”

The brewers largely finish their work in the morning, so visitors are welcome to look around in the afternoon. Currently, Udaka-san a tōji from a brewery in Shikoku Chuo that closed down, is making sake at Miyoshikiku. She’s the first case of a sake refugee that we’ve heard of.

In the brewery, there are the washed up remains of a fune press, no longer used. Now, Mamiya-san uses a novel system of his own design – a box with a spigot from which bags of mash are hung and weight is applied. It’s an effective method for the small batches made here.

We deferred the tasting and went to Mai-Mai instead, where we enjoyed five or six glasses with beautifully prepared dishes of snack food. Each sake was bold and characterful with a totally alluring aroma, and each was different from the rest – quite an achievement!

Information

Name in Japanese: 三芳菊酒造

Pronunciation: miyoshigiku shuzō

Address: 1661 Ikedacho Sarada, Miyoshi, Tokushima 778-0003

Opening hours: 8:00-20:00

Website: http://www.facebook.com/Miyoshikiku/

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